These two authors both live and work in Oxford. They conceived and wrote this book “in weekly breakfast discussions” over a period of sixteen years. Roger Wagner is a painter and poet, principally with religiou themes: among his previous books is an illustrated translation of the psalms. Andrew Briggs is a quantum physicist, and Oxford’s Professor of anomaterials since the chair was created for him in 2002; but he also has a degree in theology, is an editor of Science and Christian Belief and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion.
Their theme in this book is that, since the birth of Homo sapiens, religious and scientific thinking have developed together, inseparably synergistic. The interaction is epitomized by 19th Cy carvings above the doorways of the Oxford University Museum and the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge: respectively an angel with an open book and germ cells, and a Latin verse from Psalm 111, translated as “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all that have pleasure therein”. But European readers need not fear that the book is narrowly focused on English university culture. Though it does not consider the Far East, its geographical coverage is otherwise almost as striking as its range in time. A simplistic summary might say that it is a history of the parallel developments of scientific and religious thinking in European and Islamic cultures over the last 100,000 yrs. But that description does not say that what we are treated to is an unconventional, brilliant, idiosyncratic, and immensely charming essay, which is a privilege to read.
The story – like that of Wentzel van Huyssteen in his 2006 Gifford lectures, though there is no cross-reference – begins with the cave paintings of southwestern Europe. Setting the pattern for their book as a whole, Wagner and Briggs tell it in terms of the people who made the discoveries, and the controversies in which they were involved. Comparable finds in the Americas, southern Africa, Indonesia and Australia reinforced the amazement at what was being found … while burials and decorative artifacts indicated both what we would now call religious sensibility, and proto-scientific technical skills, tens of millennia earlier still. For the eagerly exploring minds of our two authors, “The relationship between investigating the physical world and reaching out to something beyond it” [p. 53] was already beginning to appear. Considerable space is then given to the early Greek philosophers, in whom “the conviction of an underlying order provided the rationale for studying whole classes of natural phenomena” [p. 78]. From Pythagoras, through Plato and beyond, mathematics held a leading role in thought – scientific and religious not being meaningfully distinguishable. Though Aristotle and his followers focused much more on biological and medical observation, the end – the telos – for which a creature was constructed “linked the study of nature to a wider theology “ [p. 89].
All the major strands of Greek thought were later carried forward, for over 800 years, in Alexandria. Wagner and Briggs build their account around the intellectual confrontations of the Christian John Philoponus and the pagan Simplicius the Cicilian. Notwithstanding their conflicting religious traditions, “both shared the assumption that the truths of religion and the truths discovered by reason and observation were part of a single seamless fabric. … [This was] the ethos of the school in which both had been students” [p. 103].
as Huxley, Hooker and Sedgwick.
The next section is even more unusual: an excursion into the history of Middle Eastern archeology, and the extraordinary 19th Cy pioneers of translation from the Cuneiform. “The opening of Genesis, while still evidencing a cuneiform substratum, proposes an understanding of the character of God and his relationship to the created world that was unique in the ancient world …. In the fullness of time it was to have a profound impact on the penultimate curiosities of science” [p. 350]. Nevertheless, “ultimate curiosity, the impulse to see beyond the rim of the physical world, has been a continuous driver for new discoveries within that world. ‘The vast ontological presence that is the Hebrew God’ caused the pagan myths to be rewritten in such a way that they became signs and pointers to …. an order which is beyond human comprehension, but could nevertheless be traced in everything from the furthest reaches of the stars to the minute intricacies of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’” [p. 362].
University of Glasgow